Some of us entered into the athletic field industry in different, unconventional ways, or so it seems to me. Here’s my story:
After graduating from Portland State University and spending most of my time being the team manager for the Vikings basketball team, I was asked to follow the head basketball coach to be one of his assistants at West Texas State University in Canyon, TX just south of Amarillo. So, after 3 years at PSU, I headed to WTSU to assist the basketball program by selling tickets and setting up the arena for home games. One of my ticket buyers just happened to be John Dittrich, the new owner of the AA affiliate of the San Diego Padres, the Amarillo Gold Sox. He noticed while reading my bio in the basketball program that I had experience as a catcher in college and asked if I would be interested in being the bullpen catcher for his new team. I told him I would love the opportunity but needed to find a summer job that could pay my bills since I didn’t have any basketball responsibilities during that time of year.
He said, “Why don’t you help the guy on the field.” A month later the guy on the field left and now I was the head guy! I didn’t know much about maintaining a baseball field but was willing to learn. After getting a load of dirt on the infield that had little pebbles in it, the Gold Sox manager at the time, Glenn Ezell, was not amused and told me to get on the roller and pack the skin as tight as I could to compact the rocks. That got us through the first home stand!
Oh, by the way, I was also promoted to throwing batting practice for 8 straight days since the manager had hurt his arm in spring training and was not able to throw. My grounds equipment inventory was embarrassing; a little riding mower, a chalker that didn’t work, one irrigation outlet behind the mound and one in center field, and a kid helper that didn’t show up most of the time. Since I didn’t have a reliable chalker I made a stencil board and used a flour sifter and shook the chalk in the 4-inch gap. That lasted for a 4-game home stand; then I would shave it out and re-mark for the next series.
I accompanied the team on a couple of road trips and the players treated me more like one of them rather than the groundskeeper. When we would arrive at a field, I quickly sought out the head groundskeeper and begin asking lots of questions. I recall one trip when I accompanied our front office to the old Arlington Stadium where I met legendary groundskeeper, Johnny Oliverios. He asked me what I used to mow the infield and how often. I said once a week with a walk behind push rotary mower. He suggested I find an old powered reel mower and mow every day! $35 later I bought one from a thrift shop.
We had very sparse foul area grass and no warning track. When the team left on a 10-day road trip, the four-member front office staff and I used a sod cutter and transferred some newly cut sod (common bermudagrass) to the foul areas. The newly cut sod took with the help of daily heavy watering and rolling. Since I didn’t really have a groundskeeping budget, I only fertilized once in four seasons and relied on the common bermuda to come out of dormancy in late May. I never overseeded. So with mowing every other day and heavy watering between series and road trips I was able to maintain a safe playing surface.
One of the advantages of being both head groundskeeper and bullpen catcher was the interaction between the players and coaches. If the mound was bad the night before I heard about it in the bullpen. If the dirt was sticky, I heard about it from infield practice. And if the outfield grass was too long, I would hear from the outfielders. Even the roving instructors would give me advice. I remember pitching coach Warren Hacker suggesting that I use native clay on the bullpens; soak it down and cover it up, he advised. And I remember former MLB player, coach, and manager Bobby Valentine telling me not to overlook the surface of the outfield.
After four seasons, the team announced it was moving to Beaumont, but not without a major hitch! With my wedding upcoming in a few days, my father, Gene, and I walked over to the Budweiser distributor facility (conveniently located behind center field) so we could share a couple of beers. While walking back to the stadium before batting practice I was met with the front office staff working on the field. Some wise guy had turned the center field water on, flooding a low area in left field. After squeegeeing the water to the foul area, and a three-way conference call with the Texas League office, the field was deemed playable. Some years later I found out the culprit was my former kid assistant who was upset the team was moving and wanted to show his displeasure.
I also recall a Gold Sox promotional game we played in Lubbock. Unfortunately their idea of pro field preparation and ours were not the same. After some quick fix up the game was played. We also made a trip to Clovis, NM and this time I along with an intern arrived a day ahead of the team in order to prep the field. Clovis had less equipment than I had. When it came time to chalk the lines, the local staff pulled out flour that was bagged in pillowcases. I used the flour and as I was finishing up I turned around and saw birds eating the foul line. We had often heard players referring to our organization as “bush league” and our owner John would always say, “Welcome to the bushes!”
In February 1984, my wife and I moved to Portland. I ended up getting a job with a seed supplier. Eight years later, I quit that job and my company, Athletic Field Design, was born. Now 25 years later I couldn’t have picked a better industry to work in. Through my affiliation with the Sports Turf Managers Association and my developed clients from youth sports, high school, college and pro, I have been able to service my customers with quality work and education on sports turf maintenance and installation.
The most rewarding accomplishment though is that my son Andy, who started working with me at the age of five, played baseball all the way through college, and subsequently worked with the Washington Redskins and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Andy has taken up my passion and started his own athletic service company, Athletic Applications, and recently relocated to Phoenix.
I’m proud to have helped others get into this industry, like Chris Farhner, formerly with Sacramento River Cats; Chris Arnold, now with the Reds spring training facility in Goodyear, AZ; Casey Griffin, formerly with the Albuquerque Isotopes; and my fan favorite, Ryan Coleman, currently with the Isotopes.
Looks like I’m finishing at the start line!
Mike Hebrard is president of Athletic Field Designs, Clackamas, OR www.athleticfield.com